Monday, June 21, 2010

SFO to Hong Kong to Bangkok

20 hours on a plane. Actually, ever since I can put 16gigs of books, music, podcasts, and videos on my iPhone, it’s far less painful than it used to be. I watched 4 hours of SciFi’s Tin Man which wasn’t bad at all, listened to a few hours of Car Talk, Sex with Emiliy, and the BBC, slept for 10 hours and landed in Hong Kong. Cathy Pacific was nice and on time. One more thing that really helps with sleeping is taking out the noise cancelling in-ear headphones and putting in foam ear plugs. It gets the plane noise down to almost nothing—sitting at the back of the plane far from the engines also helped.The Hong Kong airport was a bit of a letdown, though. From all the hype I’ve heard, I expected some wonder of engineering and convenience, but it’s really a pretty average FRA or ORD-style airport with overpriced and mediocre food and the usual empty luxury stores in a so-so building. At least they had reliable and free WiFi.

Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport on the other hand is a complete knockout—from the tent-like architecture to the food and the stores.
They actually have almost every store twice in the departure hall—Gucci, Prada etc.--one on each end so guests don't have to walk that far. It really recalls a classier time of air travel: spotless, clean, sparkling, and every salesperson dressed to the nines.

Since my 20 year old memory of Bangkok consisted of horrible traffic jams as well as the things I heard about the red shirts and riots, I actually booked an airport transfer for the first time in my life. Big expensive mistake. The trip to the hotel took less than 25 minutes on a mostly Sunday afternoon deserted 8 lane highway. Ironically, just about the first thing I saw on the highway was a 50 foot Kyocera printer ad. Made me really feel at home. Without going to the business center, the only signs were some cops and military camping out on the highway--literally, they brought tents and coolers and gazebos. Given that it was about 42C and 100% humidity probably a smart choice.
Bangkok had changed so much that I had trouble reconciling my memories with the new reality. Instead of a chaotic, exhaust-y mess, the area around the main train station where I stayed for the night was almost indistinguishable from Tokyo or Osaka—clean, no more tuk-tuks, and drivers even sort-of obeyed traffic signs and red lights. Unfortunately, I only had time for a shower and a quick nap before meeting the others.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

So, Cambodia and Laos

Wow, I really haven't blogged in quite a while. I did go to Cambodia and Laos in May, so lets start catching up with an FAQ (or maybe just questions I keep asking myself):

Why Cambodia and Laos?

Basically because I like South East Asia, and both countries are about as far off the map as you can go without supporting the Myanmar dictators. From what I've heard, Laos was like "Thailand before the tourists came". I also wanted to scratch Ankor Wat off my life list.

Why not Vietnam?

I'd love to go to Vietnam at some point, but I didn't have the time. Also, the $100 visa fee was somewhat of a turn off. And since Cambodia is allegedly changing rapidly, I wanted to get there before it was just like Thailand.

Just like Thailand?

Somewhat funny, because Thailand—or at least Bangkok and the few towns I saw on the way to the Cambodian border and the way back from Laos was nothing like I remembered from 20 years ago when I was there the last time. Bangkok nowadays more or less looks like Tokyo or any other large Japanese city. Very clean, very organized, and—at least on the weekends—no more of the traffic hell of bikes, carts and tuk-tuks. The food is still stellar, and the heat and humidity is still amazing. Oh, and the new airport is the most beautiful and impressive one I've ever seen. It makes Hong Kong International look old, dated and dingy.

So, Bangkok, wasn't that dangerous with all the riots?

Not really, it was confined to a few blocks in the business center, and nowhere near where my hotel was. There were no signs that anything was going on, everything was normal and as quiet as Bangkok gets. Also, most Thais I talked to expected this to wind down peacefully. They and I were really shocked when it exploded into a violent confrontation about a week after I got back to the US.

So, is it really different from the rest of South East Asia?

Unbelievably so. Crossing the border from Thailand to Cambodia is like stepping back 30 years or more. For starters, you can't drive across the border, because Thailand drives on the left and Cambodia on the right—and also to cut down on smuggling. So you walk from the air-conditioned Thai border post through a huge French colonial gate to a couple of huts with anemic fans on the Cambodian side while your luggage rides a human powered wooden cart straight out of 17th century central casting right past the guys selling pickled snails. The next impression is just the emptiness—Cambodia and Laos combined have less than the population of Bangkok. And once you leave Phnom Penh and Siam Riap behind, everything gets poorer and more backward. The biggest shock to the system—apart from S-21—was a rural farmers market that sold everything from live frogs and lizards to 7 kinds of spiders and bugs. Unfortunately all the protein many rural Cambodians can afford, even with the UNICEF food program helping out.

What was the food like?

Well, I stayed away from the bush meat, so I might have missed out on some stuff. Thai food was obviously stellar (unrelated side note: can someone please tell Thai restaurants in the US to cut out the sugar???). The Cambodian and Laotian weren't bad, but a bit monotonous, rice, noodles, ginger, garlic, and a bit of meat. Not very spicy, and after a week it all tasted the same. Still much better than American chain food, though. Thanks to the French, the baguettes are excellent, as well. When we crossed back into Thailand, the guys hit KFC hard and out Thai guide and I did some real damage at the Thai food court.

One exception was a restaurant in Larang Prabang that was owned by the former royal cook—probably the best meal I had in a year. Hard to describe, but it was basically a huge dumpling filled with chicken in a coconut milk mousse with tons of spices. The other thing I've never eaten before were mulberry leaves which were all the rage in Vang Vien. Tasted like blackberry leaves and made awesome milkshakes.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

My first week with Windows 7

I finally got a new company laptop and consequently made the leap from XP to Windows 7. After a week, it's hard to overstate how disappointed and dismayed I am. It might be better than Vista--which I never used on my primary machine, but just on one or more of my test and virtual machines--but the main reoccurring thought is: "Really, ten years since XP and this is the best you can come up with?".

Some of the gripes:

  • Windows 7 still does a horrible job dealing with changing environments. For example:
  • When I start a large copy job while on Wi-Fi and then plug in the Ethernet cable, the job will be copied slowly over Wi-Fi instead of Windows 7 figuring out that it would only take 10 minutes over the wired network rather than two hours over wireless.
  • Every time I plug in my trackball and keyboard, Windows 7 reinstalls the drivers.
  • Windows 7 detects that my external monitor has a 1280x1024 native resolution, but still sets it to 1152x768 every time I connect it.
  • Windows 7 got rid of Netmeeting, the replacement is clunky and requires all participants to have Vista or Windows 7. Really a wonderful idea if you have contractors who are on XP.
  • The compressed folder tool is now incapable of compressing files with Asian characters in the file name (REALLY MICROSOFT???? IN 2010??????)
  • The entire user interface experience has slowed down compared to XP (and it's not even close to Mac). Even with a fast CPU and tons of RAM, most actions still show a wait cursor for a while.
  • Even after shutting off most of the Aero candy, most actions have an animation associated with it. Not only is this slowing down things, because Windows don't close until the animation ran its course, it also pulls the eye away from the mouse cursor)
  • Many actions now require more clicks. For example, in Office 2003, creating a new document was a two click process File -> New. In Office 2010 it's

1 - Click File

2 - Reorient yourself on the big new tab

3 - Find New

4 - Choose a template

5 - Find the Create New button all the way on the right

6 - Click new (unless you selected a web template, then the button is download, then you click the downloaded template, then you click Create New)

  • Even worse, there is no way to turn this off.
  • Switching to a program using the task bar is now also a multi-step process

1 - Click program icon

2 - Wait for the preview window list to come up

3 - Try and figure out which one you want

4 - Click it

Newsflash: most people want to go back to the window they last worked on in the app. In other words, the topmost window.

  • Waking up is still a 30 seconds to one minute process with 3 screens and a few animations. On any Mac laptop, it's: (1) Open lid (2) Done
  • In a lot of places, it has become impossible to tell which of multiple buttons the default action is. The best example is locking the computer. After pressing ctrl-alt-del, a green screen with a few links like Lock Computer, Log Out etc. comes up, but there is no indication that Lock Computer is the default action.
  • Windows 7 occasionally asks me to do completely superfluous and weird things. For example, when logging in to a new wireless access point on our company network, it throws up a screen asking me to classify the network as work or home. WTF? Or the Outlook default that it asks you to click a balloon to "reenter your password to send to server" every couple of hours. Since whoever sits in front of the PC doesn't have to know the password, but just click the balloon, how the eff*** is that making things more secure???? Thankfully, that can at least be turned off.
  • When Office 2010 thinks, it usually thinks wrong. For example, the Recent Documents list only contains documents I created or changed. If you just open a file to read it, it will not show up. This is wonderful for someone who works with a lot of technical references which 95% of the time you only need to read, not change.
  • In the same vein, how about adding a “correct all” option to the context menu for misspelled words? Do you really think I want to fix one Wifi, and leave the other 8 as is???? Partially related side note: can someone finally explain the difference between its and it’s to Word’s grammar checker?

I could go on, but the bright side, you can finally hide the ribbon in Office 2010.

P.S. Since the built in full text search still can't hold a candle to Google Desktop, thanks a lot for making sure that Outlook 2010 email looses all formatting in the search results.
P.P.S. /sarcasm/Thanks for removing the Desktop button from the task bar. Right clicking on the task bar and clicking on the 5th entry on the context menu is just so much easier. /end sarcasm/

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Academic data plans

Charles sent me a fake letter to the NSF. Since it doesn't match my 15 years or experience in and with academic IT, I provide this edited version as a free (as in beer) template.

Dear NSF,

I am happy to respond to your request for a 2-page Data Management Plan.

First of all, let me say how enthusiastic I am that you have embraced this new field of "large scale data analysis". I heard about this at a conference in 1999, and even though it is outside my field, it seems like a subject that could generate a lot of publications, so I have been toying with the idea to put some grad students on this and have them publish with me listed as primary investigator since I am only working on the deep questions in CS theory and haven't touched a computer in decades except for buying things for my wife on eBay. I even have my secretary print out all my email and transcribe my answers that I give her on a Dictaphone tape anywhere from 3-6 months after I get the printout.

Since it now looks like I can get funding from the NSF as soon as the English grad I hired to write my grant proposals is done, I'll get right on it.

I probably just need one big hard drive, if we need more, we'll just daisy chain them to the SGI Indy we have here. Alternatively, I would like to suggest that we combine this with a DARPA grant and acquire a StorageTek 9985V.

The files will be named by the date they were created and the name of the grad student creating them. If more than one file gets generated per day, they will be named sequentially. E.g. charles20100501-1. The file descriptions will be sent as an Excel sheet (printed and sent as PDF weekly). Students will mark the files they need for their work on the sheet, and our department assistant will create one or more custom DVD with the requested sets once a week and send them to the students. All results will be converted to PDF and sent to the department assistant who will scan them, and upload them to the disk(s).

The advantage of this is that the data on the server can't be corrupted by students, and the DVDs also serve as a backup. In case of a server disk failure, we will just ask them to return the DVDs and re-upload the data. Thanks to the ingenious naming scheme I invented above, there will be no file collisions and due to the date+sequential numbering, we intrinsically have incremental backups.

If we can't avoid it, for example because of state and federal law, we will make the produced data available to other researchers under the following license:

"You are provided this data for the sole purpose of reproducing our published results. Any attempt to publish your own analyses of this data will be rejected, if necessary during the anonymous review process, by pointing out all of the data cleanup steps you forgot to do correctly in your analysis. If you succeed in publishing, I need to be named as lead investigator."

The license will be faxed to the other department and has to be returned signed via FedEx.

After receiving the signed license, we will upload the data with the name of the requester, file date and sequential number if more than one file is requested. The files will compressed in the industry standard LZW format and encrypted. For data security, the encryption keys will not be stored electronically, but kept in a secure three ring binder in my locked desk drawer. If a key is required, my assistant has permission to open the drawer and fax the key to the requester or tell it over the phone.

After talking to my longest serving graduate assistant, Larry, he suggested ISO 8859-16 as encoding. Since he has been working in my department for 28 years, I trust his experience implicitly.

Note, we won't be using a version control system since they only add overhead. All the code will be in Python, Perl, C or FORTRAN 99 (Fujitsu/Siemens extensions), depending on the whim of the grad student. All code will be names similar to the data sets above and students and faculty will maintain their custom build scripts on their PCs.

Sincerely yours,

Professor of Biophysics and Department Chair

Sunday, April 18, 2010

I was planning to go to Yosemite

But the weather here was so nice that we went to Mare Island and the Marin Coast. Mare Island is a former navy shipyard that closed in 1996 and has been slowly falling apart since then. In it's heyday, it build a large part of the Pacific Fleet, the first aircraft carrier in 1911, and a lot of the Polaris and Poseidon submarines.

Here's a picture of the first nuclear missile sub, the USS Grayback.

And the buildings in the background today.
Anyway, lots of great decaying tech and dilapidated buildings. The rest of the pictures are here.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

s90 at the Ferry Building

Not great art, but all inside and without flash